George Walford: Equality of Ideology

Roy Hattersley, Deputy-Leader of the Labour Party, has written a book entitled: Choose Freedom; the Future for Democratic Socialism (London, Michael Joseph, 1987). The remarks which follow are based on a long extract printed in the Observer of 4 January 87.

The theme appears in the first sentence: ‘Britain is no more equal a society today than it was a hundred years ago.’ ‘Progress,’ Roy Hattersley continues, ‘has increased the total sum of prosperity without changing the relationship of the classes.’ The remainder of the extract is devoted to emphasising that for Roy Hattersley it is the relationship between classes that counts, not the total sum of prosperity.

In 1913 the infantile mortality rate for what R. H. Tawney then called ‘the poorest labouring class’ was over twice as high as that for the ‘independent class’ (123 against 48). The latest figures show that both rates have now dropped sharply, but ‘the poorest 20 per cent’ still have an infantile mortality rate more than twice as high as that of the ‘most fortunate 20 per cent.’ Roy Hattersley’s comments on this make it clear that his interest lies rather in the disparity between the classes than in the number of children dying. He demands not a reduction in the infantile mortality rate of either class (or of both) but equalisation of the two rates. For Roy Hattersley death and disease are not themselves of the first importance; what matters is that their incidence among the social classes provides ‘the classic measurement of divisions within our society.’

The pattern repeats through the extract. In health, education and housing, improvements in the condition of the poorest people are dismissed in favour of emphasis upon the continuing gap between them and the more fortunate. Roy Hattersley refers to the ‘Oxford Mobility Survey’ as showing that ‘relative positions and prospects have not changed since the Industrial Revolution’, and continues:

Of course, during that time the working-class child’s chance of “getting on” improved with changes in the economy and increases in the gross domestic product. But when we compare the relative prospects of individuals at different points on the social scale, we discover that relative class chances have hardly changed at all.

The concrete improvement is dismissed with ‘Of course’ and ‘But’; it is ‘the relative class chances’ that are stressed.

One’s first reaction tends to be that if Labour is going to present itself as the party standing for the equalisation of relative class chances, leaving the Tories to claim credit for actual improvements in living standards, elevation of quality of life and increased expectation of life, Mrs. Thatcher can stop worrying. There is also the point that on Mr. Hattersley’s own showing, the discrepancies he complains of have not been significantly reduced by decades of Labour rule.

But to stop there would be to become as one-sided as Roy Hattersley is in danger of becoming; comparisons between classes do matter. The trouble with the demand he makes is the underlying assumption that action has to be concentrated upon EITHER (as with the Tories) increasing the wealth produced by society, leaving its distribution to be fought out among the recipients, OR (as with Labour), emphasising equal .distribution of the cake to the exclusion of concern for the size of the slices.

Efficient production is one activity, ensuring equitability of distribution is a different one, and each of them requires a particular ideology for its effective performance. A fully-developed society would accomodate both.

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RATIONALISM proclaims the value of thoughtful awareness. But consider this, from Alfred North Whitehead: “Civilisation advance,by extending the number of important operations can perform without thinking about them.”

from Ideological Commentary 26, March 1987.